“Coco” Review

Pixar’s best-animated films are the ones that can take you someplace different with visuals you’ve never seen before and storytelling that catches you off guard. In other words, it’s the ones that make the adults weep the most, almost embarrassed that they’d have such feelings for an animated movie with the stigma of being strictly children’s entertainment. Being a big fan of animated films and their limitless potential for filmmaking, there’s no shame in admitting I wept for Coco, an animated movie that is surprisingly mature and honest in its drama of family and death.

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“Wicked City” Review

Taki meets a woman at a bar and takes her back to his place. They start having sex and Taki notices something strange going on with the woman’s legs and arms. Her limbs grow longer and pointier as she tries to ensnare Taki into her vagina that has now bore teeth. Luckily for Taki, he’s accustomed to dealing with monsters such as this, grabbing his gun and forcing her out the window. Now in a more spider-like form, she scurries out the window and down the building. Just another dangerous day in Wicked City.
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“Cars 3” Review

The further this Cars franchise goes, the more creepy and bizarre questions arise, going unanswered. What happens when the cars of this world die? Are they buried in concrete, scrapped in a junkyard or harvested for parts at a hospital? Are there hospitals in this world of cars? Yes, these are all very stupid questions to be asking about a rather silly and simple story about sentient racing cars, but I expect more from Pixar. They’re a studio that usually puts a lot of effort into building their worlds so that I don’t find myself asking how fish talk and why a rat controls a human.
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“Minions” Review

Oh, how the movies of the yellow minions frustrate me so. While Despicable Me was decently cute, its sequel did little to improve on its cheap premise and animation. As such, these movies will never improve and only exist as cute little excuses for squat slapstick. The latest movie with the pill-shaped, pint-sized characters only displays how much more downhill this franchise can go.
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“Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F” Review

While the previous Dragon Ball Z movie managed to win me over by taking a new spin on the fantastical fighting formula, Resurrection F finds the franchise going back to its old bad habits. The villain this time around is the purple-domed alien Frieza, the most powerful warlord of the series that just can’t seem to stay dead. He is once again revived by his crazy zealots and once again seeks out Goku so he can once again get his revenge. This is a character that was once fearsome for controlling the galaxy’s greatest army and more than able to handle any warrior that could be thrown at him. But with this movie marking the second time he’s come back from the dead, he has lost that edge as a worthy antagonist. Even our heroes seem to be underwhelmed by his presence since they already know the outcome.
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“Robot Carnival” (Discotek Release) Review

Robot Carnival acts as a deluxe sampler for the best of Japanese animation. Developed by some of the freshest talent of the late-80’s – most being animators just starting to direct – it’s an anthology film with shorts centering around robots. Some are humanoid androids that interact with humans on dates. Some are human-controlled giants that do battle. And, in the case of the opening titles, some are in giant collectives that plow through towns to announce a movie.

What I found most unique was how Katsuhiro Otomo – one of the most notable names of his anime for directing the landmark animation AKIRA – saddles himself with directing the opening and ending credit sequences. He transforms the title of the movie into a grand machine that roams the lands with an arsenal of robots and explosions. As one of his early animation directing projects, you see his style take shape that would lay the groundwork for his anime future animated features of epic carnage. A robot orchestra provides the soundtrack with musical instruments – the trumpets shooting exploding rockets. A gaggle of robotic ballerinas twirl and descend to the ground where they bow to the populace before exploding. It’s strangely detailed and hauntingly amusing as per Otomo’s trademark style for violence. And that’s just the bookend segments.

Koji Morimoto, an animator who would later work with Otomo as well, takes a stab at robotizing the classic monster story of Frankenstein with “Franken’s Gears”. Through the power of lightning, a mad scientist brings his robotic creation to life with a result both tragic and hilarious. Hidetoshi Omori directs “Deprive”, a heroic tale of one android trying to save his human counterpart from an alien invasion. It’s a decent tale of rescuing the girl with a Terminator-style twist, but it’s more admirable for boiling down its story into a few short minutes. It hits all the right beats for just long enough as not to bore those who have seen this story before.

One element I haven’t mentioned yet is that most of these shorts have zero dialogue. One of the first to actually have some speaking roles is “Presence”, a period romance of a man trying to build female robot to escape his wife and family. And even though there is some dialogue, director Yasuomi Umetsu thankfully doesn’t rely on it as he keeps the short more visual than expositional. This is also a blessing for the sake of the English dub script and voices which are surprisingly lackluster for being produced by Streamline Pictures way back in the early 90’s. You can see this at its worst in the most dialogue-heavy short “A Tale of Two Robots” which adds in too much for the English script. There might be some vindictiveness given how the short appears as World War 2 propaganda with the Japanese and English facing off in a 19th century setting with rickety giant robots. Despite the national leaning, it is rather hilarious for its limitations of technology, the amusing English dialogue recorded in Japanese and that this short is staged as third part of a trilogy that does not exist.

There are some more light and artistic additions as well in the form of “Cloud”, Mao Lambo’s segment about a robot walking through time to eventually become a real human. It’s beautifully rendered the way the rise and fall of humanity is portrayed through flowing clouds. This is a sweet and somber short that helps break up the frenetic energy of other shorts.

The most stereotypically 80’s of all the shorts would be “Star Light Angel” (even the title sounds very 80’s). A teenage girl after recently experiencing a breakup finds herself getting lost in an amusement park where a robot employee begins falling in love with her. Complete with laser-light shows and bright neon colors, I can’t think of any other Japanese animation that encapsulates the decade so perfectly with its bubblegum tone of a music video. There’s even a shameless plug for Coke included which could only be more 80’s if Max Headroom was drinking it.

Last and certainly not least is “Nightmare”, a post-apocalyptic vision of the future where robots rule and one drunken human finds himself escaping death. There’s a tremendous amount of inspiration from the likes of Fantasia and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It’s the most noteworthy of the batch not just for its stunningly intricate animation, but for touching on serious tones of robotization in a playful manner. This is perhaps one of the most defining aspects of anime that can achieve a thoughtfulness to darker subjects and find a way to transform them into unique works of art.

As far as anthology films go, Robot Carnival offers a lot of bang for the buck with a large number of shorts from tremendously talented artists. There are so many styles and tones present that there’s a little something for anyone seeking an animated sci-fi experience. With its operatic presentation and breathtaking animation, it’s the anime equal of Fantasia. And I’m aware that’s a lofty mantle to bestow, but it’s deservingly so as a unique experiment and a springboard for the talented anime directors of the 1990’s.

“Home” Review

Dreamworks is an animation studio that usually aims to match the level of Pixar’s visual beauty, but rarely do they reach that level of storytelling. Home comes as a bit of a surprise in that it’s a bland dud in both categories. You need only compare the movie to Dreamworks’ projects of last year: the fantastical splendor of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and the quick wit of Penguins of Madagascar. By comparison, Home feels so stock and simple that it is as though it were produced by a studio struggling to be a Dreamworks production.

The design is just a bore. The gummy-shaped aliens known as the Boov are squat and simple beings that all look alike. I sensed a channelling of the formula for Minions, but those banana-colored, pill-shaped guys at least had a few differentiating designs to tell them apart. These aliens all seem as though they were clones, differing only in voice and maybe a mustache. But for as doe-eyed and cute as Dreamworks aims to make the Boov, they grated on my nerves with their annoying stupidity and inability to find a proper home planet. They’re led by an idiot of a king voiced by Steve Martin that has no idea how to lead, but plenty of time to babble in Steve Martin lingo. Somehow they manage to conquer Earth by vacuuming all the humans and quarantine them to Australia. How this tactic differed from their earlier conquering methods – where the Boov couldn’t handle carnivorous beasts or giant robots – is never answered. Perhaps Earth decided to destroy all their weapons. It’s the only acceptable reason how this invasion went so flawlessly.

The Boov are such ridiculously uneducated creatures – invading a planet where they don’t even comprehend how a toilet works – that the runt of the litter has to be incredibly foolish. So unlikable is this character that he has been designated as Oh (Jim Parsons), named after the sigh induced by his presence. All the Boov make loads of mistakes, but Oh is singled out considering his mistakes mostly damage his entire race. You can almost smell the heartfelt message about being an outcast careening towards the second act.

When Oh causes one too many culture-destroying errors, he goes on the lam to find a new home in Antarctica. Along the way he picks up the only human girl outside capture – a plucky preteen named Tip (Rihanna). She’s not a very interesting character outside of seeking her mom and acting as the straight character to the goofy Oh. They go ahead on their little road trip to their locations of choice, becoming best of friends along the way while they learn valuable lessons about family, friendship and all that jazz.

I don’t like walking into a movie where I can predict its outcome and my opinion, but there was a little voice in the back of my head that just screamed this movie was a product of an assembly line. All promotional materials seemed to suggest that this movie was rushed from Dreamworks’ template where they forgot to remove the placeholder content. They designed cute aliens, but didn’t make them unique. They added in a kid-relatable character, but forgot to give her personality. They staged a large-scale chase across an iconic city, but forgot to make it thrilling. They made the story family friendly, but threw out a truckload of logic in its world to make it so. They even jump the gun by relying on the tired device of dancing to pop music far too early that the inevitable finale of a dance party fizzles out any entertainment.

Home may seem as a cute little animation for the kids, but it’s overly fluffed up with soft content that even the kids will grow weary of its artificial sweeteners. There’s no imminent threat to make it thrilling, no big challenges for the characters to conquer and no daring nature to the story or its comedy. It’s a passive movie that will not offend with any violence or scary scenes, but won’t be uniquely entertaining either. And this is precisely why I can’t recommend the picture in that there is hardly any excitement or risk. Animated films should inspire the imagination of children with characters they can identify with and visuals that stimulate wonder. They shouldn’t just distract with a few crude jokes about urine, add in a familiar song with dancing and send them on their way.

And as long as I’m coming down hard on the movie, I might as well admit it: I hated the Boov. I didn’t like their design, their character or the culture. By the end of the picture I was hoping a large alien armada would swoop in to zap these little guys into globs of gelatin. Are these the kinds of thoughts a grown man should be having during an animated children’s movie which just wanted to be sweet and silly? Chalk that up to one more reason not to see this picture.

“Monster High: Scaris, City of Frights” Review

Once more I venture into the limitless void of the TV movie franchise Monster High. Intended as little more than a commercial for the brand of monster themed dolls, I desperately search for something to latch onto from the perspective of an adult male. I’m not picky – a clever use of dialogue, some decent character development, good looking animation or even just one small gag that makes me chuckle. I don’t walk into this endless array of Monster High movies expecting the worst every time. I genuinely pop in each disc hoping that this will be the one – this will be the movie where I finally see that hidden power of Monster High outside its marketing angle. Sadly, this is not that movie.

But let’s be fair. This is not the worst Monster High movie I’ve seen. The story at least has a decent angle. One lucky student specializing in fashion, Clawdeen Wolf (trademarked), receives the chance of a lifetime to travel to Scaris, France and compete for an apprenticeship with a top designer, Madame Ghostier (trademarked). That’s not a half-bad idea considering it’s within the wheelhouse of the franchise and the characters. The whole Devil Wears Prada plot allows for some unique characters added into the mix as well including a skeleton girl with a painted skull. No devil designer present though which could have made for some better jokes. It’s a genuine surprise from a series where all the characters look virtually identical and rely entirely on references and bad puns for comedy.

And, oh, how I wish there was something more to enjoy. The flat characters of simple phrases and traits seriously hamper the story that aims to include as many monsters as possible. Very little of Scaris takes advantage of the French location and theme outside of the cartoonish stereotypes. Then again, there isn’t much to showcase from the TV-budgeted animation of the stretchy CGI animation. The movie could at least take advantage of the monster angle which it almost always fails to capitalize on.

There’s one gag that manages to be effective as the girls remark on the skeletons in the catacombs. Turns out they’re just taking naps and shush anybody who wakes them. It’s a decent joke, but how does that explain an underground prison cell where it implies the last person wasted away to a skeleton? Does that imply that they still live on as a skeleton? Or can they become more accepted if they wear clothes and paint their skull? Are the catacomb skeletons actually hobos? Why do I keep asking these questions about a cartoon for little girls?

The most annoying aspect of the whole movie is that the plot refuses to stick to its running time. The real story wraps up about 40 minutes in. The remaining 20 are reserved for the ride back home in which the monster girls and boys hop around the globe to retrieve their luggage. The movie doesn’t even bother transitioning well into this segment by stating “hey, don’t you want to see how we got back?” Not really. You got on a plane, right? Oh, you had to make some detours to get back some mystical book that doesn’t really have any major consequences? Why did I need to see this? I’m perfectly content if the movie were only 40 minutes. This segment doesn’t really add anything extra to the story. It should be its own short or bonus episode included on the disc – not an excuse to bloat up a movie to an hour.

Scaris, City of Frights may be the only half-decent movie I’ve seen out of Monster High, but it’s still held back if not by its one-dimensional characters then for its short story (which required an extra episode just to make it an hour). Once again, I must preference this review in that I’m not in the target audience. I’m not 12, a girl or collect the dolls. I’m just an adult man writing a negative review about a cartoon movie made specifically and unquestionably to sell toys to little girls.

“.hack//G.U. The Trilogy” Review

The world of .hack has grown far too meta and silly for its own good by the time it reached G.U. One glance at this movie and you’d swear you were watching a video game which is what .hack//G.U. happens to be. It’s a movie based on a video game about people playing a video game using video game animation. So even though you’re watching another cliche pastiche of anime action, it has the angle of being a video game that is hardly taken advantage of. But .hack can’t spend all its time trying to make its world a convincing online gaming environment. To do so means that the convoluted story would crumble under its own templated ambitions.

The online world of .hack//G.U. once again asks the viewer to put aside all semblance and rules of reality (literally). Pretend that the only way to solve an issue with video game users being thrown into comas with a video game is to actually go in the game and recruit players to solve this mystery. And by solve I mean wander around in the game and pretend to stir up drama. You can’t just shut down the game and debug this very serious issue. If the developers of the game did that, then we’d have no story.

The story is a-typical anime affair. Emotionally scarred hero befriends perky/shy girl. Girl is attacked by evil, emotionless man. Evil man and emotional hero fight for an extended period of time. I could make some ironic joke about how these fight sequences look like watching a video game instead of a movie, but I’ll keep it simple by just saying how blah the animation appeared. By 2007 standards, it’s not terrible CGI. In fact, it’s actually slightly higher on the scale of cel-shaded 3D animation. But it’s only used for moments of stilted dialogue and minimal-keyframe battles. It’s amazing how computer graphics can offer up something entirely different from hand-drawn animation, but this movie seems to be focused on replicating all of anime’s limitations – as if it were its own style to animating less.

There’s one big glaring problem with this whole setup and it’s that we never see the real world outside of this video game. It would really help sell the danger if we could actually see some of these players in reality being affected by the game and put into comas. Instead, the movie just expects you to take its word for it. For all we know, the characters we watch are not actually avatars of real people. They could all just be programs that are not aware of who they really are. We never see any of these characters not in the game so it’s entirely plausible.

As with all the .hack franchise productions, this title shares the same fundamental flaw of failing to take advantage of its own concept. You rarely feel as though you are witnessing a game world and more of a fantasy realm where sometimes an electronic display will pop up. In between all the dull-as-dishwater fights are some brief glimpses of creativity for the digital world. As a female avatar descends into a coma, she is confronted by ascending bubbles that burst with the snickers and gossip of those that judge the player in real life. There’s something here – something that could be capitalized upon to bring some character and world building to this anime. But the bubble bursts and it’s gone.

.hack//G.U. continues to expand the lore of its world and does nothing to bring outsiders into the fold. If you haven’t watched the previous anime series or played any of the .hack games, there isn’t anything to latch onto in this movie (or trilogy or whatever). On the basis for being so run of the mill with its design and story, I can’t find much of anything in this release to warrant even a rental.

“Strange Magic” Review

Bless George Lucas’ heart for wanting to create an alternative animated film for his daughters. He puts forth an admirable effort to create an animated picture both unique and old-fashioned with its female-favoring story and plenty of musical numbers amid a classically told story of love and kingdoms. Strange Magic is a movie I want to love so badly in how daring and different it aims to be from the usual template of animated features. And yet I cannot bring myself to that point simply for all the familiar George Lucas faults, which remain present even when he’s not directing.

The story starts off simple enough, but soon twists itself into a series of love triangles. There is a good part of the forest with plants and fairies and a bad part of the forest inhabited with swamps and bugs. The good-natured Fairy Kingdom is about to have a wedding as the ecstatic princess Marianne is to be wed to the cocky Roland. But when she discovers that Roland has secretly given his heart to another, Marianne quickly sheds her princess persona to become a hardened warrior vowing never to fall in love again. Fairies must have wicked mood swings to go from romanced royalty to battle-hungry soldier in a few minutes. Perhaps the abundance of too much splendor in an overly cheerful forest kingdom brings out a quick wish to strife.

While Marianne builds up her angst, her best friend Dawn becomes kidnapped by the evil Bog King of the dark swamp lands. This comes just as the shy elf Sunny has acquired a love potion he hopes will win him the heart of Dawn. But when Dawn inhales the potion, the person she spots to fall in love with is the Bog King. Thus begins an adventure tale of sword fights, giant forest creatures, romance and musical numbers.

While all the songs are sung by different characters in context to their current emotions, these are all cover songs of classic rock and pop tunes. Nearly all the songs are actually sung by the lead voice actors Evan Rachael Wood and Alan Cumming. While their singing voices are more than decent, it made me wonder how much better they’d fair with more original songs as opposed to the overly familiar melodies of Burt Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. George Lucas stated that he initially wanted to have Beatles songs, but they were too expensive. While it might have made the music a little more interesting, I doubt it would’ve improved the presentation nor would the other idea to simply make the movie an opera.

The biggest hurdle for any animated film to conquer – especially one that has been tossed around to various companies – is the animation itself. In terms of design and texture, this computer animated world doesn’t look half-bad. There was certainly some detail put into this as one of the cast members remarked how many changes her character’s hair went through. And while it’s pleasing to see computer animation with designs more anatomical than stylized, it certainly could have used more appeal. Maybe it was due to the production lasting 15 years in various stages, but the characters resembled those old animation tutorials I used to use in college. The fairies, trolls and elves all resemble designs that seem ripped straight from a student animation. It’s an A+ student project, mind you, but this is a theatrical animated picture we’re talking about written by an accomplished filmmaker.

There is some humor and spunk to Strange Magic, but it’s just as shoehorned in as the musical numbers amid a twisty plot of romances. All of the appeal – progressively appealing as it seems – just narrowly misses the mark. The animation is decent, but most kids are not going to respond to an animated film of decent quality. The songs are a charming addition, but outplay their welcome as the relation grows more base with the on-screen emotions. And, most importantly, it all just doesn’t blend as well it should. A fairy romance/action/musical animated picture may work someday, but not with this movie. With its fluctuating tones and simple story elements, Strange Magic is more strange than magical.